One Benefit to Same-Sex Marriage That Nobody Is Talking About

05/07/2015 04:20 pm ET | Updated May 07, 2016

As the U.S. Supreme Court decides whether the Constitution requires recognition of same-sex marriage, many have speculated about the real-world consequences and benefits of marriage equality.

On at least one front the answer is clear: Extending marriage rights to same-sex couples will improve America's health.

The empirical evidence is indisputable: Married Americans are healthier and live longer than the unmarried. They enjoy better overall health, have fewer chronic conditions, are less likely to have a heart attack and more likely to survive a heart attack if they have one, and they are less likely to be institutionalized in old age.

Marriage benefits health because spouses influence each other's health habits, provide emotional and social support that promotes healthy immune and cardiovascular functioning, and facilitate the use of preventive and curative health care. These well-documented findings make the denial of marriage to gay and lesbian Americans a hazard to public health.

Marriage may be even more important to the health of gay and lesbian people than to heterosexuals. Gays and lesbians face more stress throughout life -- precisely because of their sexual minority status -- and this stress takes a toll on their health. A recent Institute of Medicine report shows that sexual minority populations are at greater risk for a wide range of health conditions including depression and anxiety, chronic health conditions, disability and overall poorer physical health.

The legalization of same-sex marriage in some states means that social scientists are now in a position to assess marriage and health dynamics of same-sex couples. As a researcher studying how same-sex married couples influence each other's health, including how they take care of each other during illness, I find that same-sex spouses do many of the same things that heterosexual spouses do to influence each other's long-term health.

For example, they help each other with important medical decisions and remind each other to take their medications, eat well and exercise. But my empirical findings show that when one spouse is seriously ill, gay and lesbian spouses tend to be even more supportive of each other than are heterosexual spouses.

Perhaps most striking, same-sex patients and their spouses are more likely to mutually support each other when one of them is seriously ill, and to have more confidence that the spouse will provide the support he or she needs if future health problems occur.

In contrast, heterosexual marriages are characterized by strong gender dynamics in which women provide more support to men than men provide to women. Heterosexual women provide more support to their spouses even when the woman is the patient. Indeed, heterosexual women more often feel they cannot rely on their spouses to take care of them. And couples are more likely to divorce if a wife becomes seriously ill than if a husband becomes seriously ill.

Sometimes people talk as if marriage equality is all about giving gay and lesbian couples the same benefits as heterosexual couples. That is important, of course, but equally important are the benefits that heterosexual couples may derive as we learn more about how men and women in same-sex unions promote healthy behaviors and supportive relationships. Securing marriage equality for gay and lesbian people can provide broader lessons about how to increase the health-building properties of marriage for all Americans.

Access to marriage will benefit the health of gay and lesbian populations and provide greater stability for their families. A healthier population promotes quality of life for individuals and, at the same time, serves to reduce health care costs for society as a whole.

We can debate whether embracing same-sex marriage is the right thing to do. We should all agree that it is the healthy thing to do.

Debra Umberson is the Christie and Stanley E. Adams Jr. Centennial Professor in Liberal Arts and a professor of sociology at The University of Texas at Austin.